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SocietyJanuary 1, 2024

Help Me Hera: How do I open up again?


Summer reissue: I’ve been really closed off after a rough few years but I’m ready to come back into the world. Where do I start?

First published on August 24, 2023.

Dear Hera,

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how to open up again. The last few years, due to crushing grief (my mum died) and bad relationships (cheating) I have found myself really closed off to anything new, wanting to spend my time as alone as possible and reluctantly and regretfully spending any time with anyone. I went on some dates last year and kept finding myself thinking, “I could see myself being in love with you, but I don’t want to.” Naturally this meant I stopped dating.

I had a period before this closed era where I made so many new friends just because I felt very open and interested in other people. It didn’t feel draining to be open, it felt so easy and rewarding that it wasn’t even a question. Now I’m coming out of my years of isolation and recognising that I want more and new friends, and new relationships. I want to feel connected and excited about people and life again. But knowing this hasn’t made me feel any more open. I still feel like I’m holding all of myself aside and apart, even if I don’t want to.

I know probably the key is accepting where I am, in the moment and at my current state. But I feel like I have been embracing my closed-offness in the last few years, which has led me here, and now I want something else.

Any advice would be very appreciated.


Closed Off

Dear Closed Off,

Welcome back to the world! Everything’s basically the same as when you left it, only various ancient pathogens have been released from the ice, and Coke Zero got discontinued. 

I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough few years. Losing a parent is enough to throw anyone into a tailspin. Add a few devastating romantic betrays and a pandemic into the mix, and it’s no wonder you decided to go into full-time hibernation, like one of those rare North American wood frogs that freeze solid in winter and only thaw out when the ambient temperature of the surrounding ecosystem is warm enough to thaw their blood.

Apparently, when you’re grieving*, your brain produces excess theta waves, which usually only occur when you’re meditating or drifting off to sleep. Neurologically speaking, you’ve basically been sleepwalking through the last few years. But now the daffodils are peeping out. There are baby pigeons eating teriyaki chicken wings in the alley behind the dumpster. Spring is on the wind and you’re ready to return to the world again. 

But this time it’s different because you’re returning as a changed person. You’re breathing in the pollen-rich air of an alien planet, and wondering why things don’t feel the same. You miss the natural curiosity and enthusiasm you had before. But the last few years have transformed you – and now you have to learn to exist, in this new, Coke-Zero-less world. 

Is there a reason you’re specifically seeking out new relationships? You said you didn’t see anyone for a few years, what happened to your old friends? Did they stick by you, or did they drop out of contact when your mum died? People can be weird and awkward about death and often don’t really know how to talk to someone that’s grieving. 

To be honest, I feel weird and awkward answering this letter, because I haven’t experienced a big loss, so any attempt to give you meaningful advice seems dubious, like telling someone how to disarm a bomb over the phone after skim-reading the manual. I’m also the last person who should be giving advice about how to recapture a feeling of social ease and openness. But I do know what it’s like to struggle with being perpetually closed off, and still step into the world anyway.

You say the key to your current situation might be accepting where you are. But sometimes accepting where you are means knowing the things which once came easy to you might feel harder this time around. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing.

You’ve taken good care of yourself and listened to your intuition. But it sounds like you need a change. So my best advice would be not to sit around waiting on a feeling that may not return. If you want new friends and relationships, the best way forward is to seek out new experiences. To adopt a posture of openness towards the world, even if you don’t feel it in your blood yet. Sometimes faking it and hoping the feeling follows is weirdly effective.

I won’t pretend to know what young people do for fun these days. I imagine it’s something quixotically wholesome, like going on hikes to waterfalls or starting anarchist puppet theatres. Whatever those things are, go and do them. With low expectations and an open mind. It might be disappointing at first: chasing old highs can be a recipe for disappointment. But I’d hate for you to feel that just because things are harder in some ways, it means you’re not ready. 

Be patient and take your time. You’ve had a really rough few years. And if things are a little slower than you thought, or you’re finding it difficult to recapture the easy joy of your former life, don’t be discouraged! Waking up from a cryogenic sleep is always painful at first. 

The older I get, the more I think about the poet Mary Ruefle saying, the world we are born into is not the one we leave. It’s one of those things that sounds obvious but feels truer the older you get. There are some feelings we never get back again. That we don’t know are specific to a person or a place or a time in our lives, until we leave them behind.

You have changed, and that isn’t a bad thing. It will definitely make some things harder. But there might be different kinds of freedom or intimacy, which you could never have had without these experiences. Connections with people who were previously off limits to you. There will be new relationships you couldn’t possibly have anticipated. New kinds of happiness you didn’t know to expect. The best thing you can do is go out there and try and meet them.

Take care of yourself out there.

*According to some shit I read on the internet once.

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